Meet the St. Louis Zoo’s most trusted assistents

John Rucker’s team of Boykin spaniels have been trained to sniff out three-toed box turtles in Missouri—a crucial help in the project to help stop the spread of a virus fatal to the reptiles in the area.

When the St. Louis Zoo needed a hand, they knew who to call: “The Turtle-Whisperer”.

This is the cryptic moniker for John Rucker, the man who has trained seven Boykin spaniel dogs to sniff out turtles. The zoo summoned Rucker and his canine team to their WildCare Park conservation area to track down three-toed box turtles, who are currently being threatened by an outbreak of Ranavirus—a disease which has an 80% fatality rate for this specific group of reptiles. Once a turtle is found, the dog brings it to a scientist who applies a tracking advice to the reptile, which will remain on their shell for a year as part of a continued research initiative. Ultimately, tracking has been implemented to better understand the turtles’ movement through their environment and their health amidst the spread of the dangerous Ranavirus.

Rucker’s dogs are trained to be “soft-mouthed”, gently picking up the turtles and bringing them to officials at WildCare Park. Thankfully, the virus cannot be spread to dogs, so their direct contact with the turtles does not put their health in jeopardy.

In a Good New Network Article, St. Louis Institute for Conservation Medicine’s Jamie Palmer expresses gratitude for the dog’s turtle-finding prowess. “Every year we do annual health assessments of our turtles at our field sites. We spread out in a line and just walk the woods, eyes to the ground—and we don’t do it well because they’re good at hiding,” he says. “There’s so much error in humans, and we’ve spent hundreds of hours. But dogs, their noses are better than ours…and we’ve seen them find a lot of turtles.”
Because the turtles leave behind a very faint scent of smell in the ground as they move, the dogs’ acute olfactory skills and proximity to the ground make them a prime candidate for being effective “turtle-whisperers.” So, with the dogs’ help, scientists are able to find their turtles safely in a much more efficient manner—which is especially necessary as these turtles encounter a severe health scare.

Rucker’s turtles have also brought their talents to neighboring Iowa and Illinois. As Missouri’s official reptile, the three-toed box turtles are of particular interest to the state, making the threat of the Ranavirus pathogen all the more significant.